Sunday, February 14, 2021

Ravi Zacharias, Habitual Sin, and the Absence of Virtue

 The late Ravi Zacharias has been disgraced due to substantiated allegations of sexual misconduct, including rape, that were ongoing during the course of his long and successful ministry. The evidence now being well circulated among media outlets and there is no point in recounting them here. 

The particulars might be different, but the story is thematically the same as has been documented in Roman Catholic circles for the past two decades. Men in positions of spiritual and implied psychological authority manipulating the vulnerabilities of their targets and the tenets of their shared religion (typically in areas of obedience and forgiveness) and undertaking gross violations of persons and infractions against morality. All the while, these same men demonstrate a public persona and exercise a public ministry (to one degree or another) at great disparity with the clear malevolence of their secret transgressions. In the case of Zacharias, it was a very public, very famous, and by all accounts very impactful apologetics ministry that gave many believers (largely evangelical) a sense of steady ground at a time of visible transition in Western culture to more radical secularism than had been present in previous decades. 

My own personal encounters with Ravi Zacharias’ work is limited to a YouTube clip I watched perhaps four years ago. If memory serves, he was addressing the objections posed by an atheist in some other forum to a large audience. He sounded eloquent enough, though I can’t say his response was particularly memorable - I can’t recall it now for the life of me. Otherwise, my awareness of him was largely on the basis of his very active and effective marketing machine. Only the most doggedly sectarian Orthodox or Catholic could claim no knowledge of who the man was and his presence in contemporary Christianity.

Beneath Zacharias’ ministry was, by all accounts, a deep seeded and habitual sin. Sexual sins are the most visceral. As Thomas Hopko once noted in his 55 Maxims, don’t argue with lust, flee it - lust will win the argument every time. Without trying to open any window of sympathy of Zacharias or any other sexual predator, for he deserves none, we must soberly note (without sympathy) that sexual sins, if they become habitual, exert a nearly absolute domination on the one who commits them. Invariably, the sin must be satisfied. For someone who is assaulted for the sake of this satisfaction, the horror eclipses our capacity to truly understand the nature of the violation. Sexual sins are often the most destructive to the person upon whom the action was done. There is a degree of psychological damage that crimes such as rape can inflict upon a victim of such magnitude that most of us can scarcely comprehend how intimate of an assault has taken place. We should only need to stop and recognize that post traumatic stress disorder, depression, and borderline personality disorder are all recorded psychological outcomes of sexual assault and they should provide us with a window into the severity of the trauma. 

It is not uncommon to find charismatic religious personalities living with a dark secret, committed to sins against another that strikes one as the bi-polar opposite of their convictions of faith. This phenomenon is not new - Paul alludes to it in I Corthinians - nor is it limited to Christianity or organized religion. Perennialist (or quasi new age depending upon one’s take) guru Frithjof Schuon was accused in the 1990s of conducting a “ritual practice” that required him to engage in disgusting contact with young girls. The charges, to the best of my knowledge, where never substantiated or prosecuted by his death in 1998, however, there was apparently a full court press by Schuon's representatives to bury the story. 

There are differences between Schuon and Zacharias. As stated above, the veracity of the allegations against Schuon has been left unproven. However, I would argue the most clearly defined difference between the two is the reception and reaction to the allegations. Though no one who reads the allegations regarding Schuon disputes the disturbing nature of them, there is almost a sense of expectation in so far as there is a common cultural supposition that it is only a matter of time before a rogue spiritual guru participates in some grave moral transgression. Whereas someone like Zacharias, or the numerous cases in the Roman Church, elicits two markedly different reactions.

No doubt there are many who receive the story of Zacharias’ hidden life with a self assured sense of knowing. This audience suspects and expects hidden moral hypocrisy among religious figures. As such, Zacharias’ secret sins confirm what they already knew and justifies much of their antipathy. Indeed, any Christianity worth the name necessarily upholds a morality that runs contrary to the contemporary permissiveness and norms of the West. However, this morality strikes many as a strident judgment against people, instead of an affirmation of a greater and perhaps more challenging obtainable good. 

There is, however, another audience that receives these same allegations and rather than have them confirm suspicions, these same allegations shatter (either briefly or perpetually) an innate sense that religious or spiritual leaders cannot possibly ascend, in either renown or authority, unless they are living the most virtuous of lives, lives which readily and unambiguously reflect the greater principles which they espouse. The recognition that this is not the case elicits shock and disorientation, where it hasn’t already been replaced by lowered expectations or jadedness. This dereliction of duty is something cannot and simply should not be, but it is. Baring a sober realignment of expectations, the results are either denial or dejection leading to disillusion. 

At root, there is the glaring contradiction between his ministry and the habitual sin in his private life. An argument is often made that this is, if we’re honest, the case with all of us. Religious or not, we all demonstrate a very public persona that does not immediately disclose our misdeeds, prejudices and struggles. For the Christian, we may overtly proclaim our faith, we may in fact public ally live that faith, but this does not translate into our sins being made public. Even at the confession during liturgy, it is stil only the priest who knows the struggles one encounters in pursuit of theosis. How many of us would like our sins, whether past or present, transparent for all to see? I suspect none. This is the problem with contemporary social media shaming - it exposes without taking into account the growth of the individual an the prospects for repentance and forgiveness. 

This said, forgiveness and repentance require a change of life. No, none of us want all of our transgressions aired for the world to see. But there is a prerequisite that one is actively seeking to change one’s life. The evidence so far available indicates this was not the intention of Zacharias. 

The question over the character of those in authority has been a long dispute in Christianity. In the end, the path forward was to settle upon the notion that the character of the person in authority does not impinge upon the legitimacy of their office. This said, historically, it can influence disciplinary decisions surrounding their suitability to continue to hold office. As such, on these grounds alone, if there were was wide knowledge of Zacharias’ habitual sin, there should have been a movement to remove him from his position. 

More to the core of the problem, it is that there was no method for establishing or reestablishing the practice of virtue to address the habitual sin. One can only speculate when Zacharias began this behavior. But in the midst of its development, the practice of virtue to counter vice, not to mention psychotherapy, is as yet unaccounted for. Whether or not Ravi Zacharias’ own psychological makeup would have allowed for such correction is, of course, debatable; Ted McCarrick, for instance, still doesn’t think he did anything wrong, pointing to the pathological disassociation of their psyches from their actions. 

The victims will be monetarily compensated - the spiritual and psychological damage will hopefully be addressed in a manner far superior to that which the Catholic Church has addressed its victims. The memory of the man and his ministry will be consigned to oblivion. The people that were influenced by him will need to reconcile the disparity and determine their path forward. And they will largely be left alone to do so save for the awareness of potential pastors that cross their path and don’t shy away from ministering to men and women grappling with the depraved moral failing of a man professing to minister Christ. 

And at some point, on the other side of the Eschaton, Zacharias, like all of us, will have to give an account of everything he did and failed to do, everything he knew and failed to learn, before the Just Judge that will judge us all. This, however, will be a challenging comfort to his victims and his collateral damage. 

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